Celtic’s juxtaposing results against PSG and Ross County perfectly illustrates their predicament. They’re stuck, too strong at home but lacking the resources and financial power needed to compete with Europe’s elite in the Champions League. Where do they go from here?
For once when Ross County rolled into town Celtic might have felt a little sympathy for them. County were facing an impossible task. Away to a side whose financial muscle is a far, far greater than their own and who are blessed with an array of young, attacking talent.
County, although responsible for a number of high profile and improbable results over the years, were playing an unfair game. The inequality was too great and it showed as the home side won 4-0. But only four days earlier, Celtic themselves were in that situation, taken apart 5-0 by Paris Saint-Germain.
This is the problem for Celtic. As the week’s results perfectly illustrate, they are for too strong for the challenge at home but just don’t have enough to seriously compete with Europe’s elite.
Saturday’s result means Brendan Rodgers’ team have now gone 55 domestic matches unbeaten, and it’s hard to see where their next defeat in the league, or indeed cup, will come from. Even in Saturday’s fixture, the first Old Firm of the season away to Rangers, anything other than a Celtic win would be a surprise.
Much like how it’s not Celtic’s fault that PSG are able to go out and spend over £200m on signing Neymar, and committing just as much to signing Kylian Mbappe, it’s not the rest of Scottish football’s fault that Celtic are so dominant.
Celtic’s ability to go out and hire Rodgers, buy and keep Moussa Dembele, as well as being able to sign Patrick Roberts on loan for a second season, despite Premier League interest, is something that none of their competitors would be able to do. Aberdeen have done remarkably well over the past couple of years to at least keep Celtic on their toes, but even then the closest they have come is still 15 points short.
At the moment there isn’t a lot Aberdeen,St Johnstone, Hearts, Hibs and the rest can do. Not while Rodgers remains at the club and Dembele, Sinclair, Griffiths etc continue to play at a level that they are simply too good for. Obviously, it is clear that only Rangers have the historical and cultural significance, plus the economic and financial potential, to challenge. But after their recent struggles they still continue to find significant progress hard to come by.
Conversely, there isn’t a lot Celtic can do in Europe against PSG, or will be able to do in a few weeks against Bayern Munich. The inequalities that exist at home are the same that Celtic came up against in the Champions League. While Celtic are in a different world to the rest of Scotland, Europe’s biggest clubs are in a different stratosphere.
Which is a shame. It’s a shame because Celtic, as well as of course Rangers, and to a lesser extent Aberdeen and the remainder of the Big Six, are and, deserve to be, big European names. Celtic Park is one of the best atmosphere you can find on a European night and the Champions League is much better for it. But when Celtic are unable to compete it will remain quiet, flat and insignificant, like it was when Celtic found themselves 5-0 down late on Wednesday night.
But to be fair, Celtic weren’t expecting to beat PSG on Wednesday. Celtic fans will tell you that a successful Champions League campaign will be beating Anderlecht to 3rd place, qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League, and securing European football for after Christmas. That’s still a problem though. Turning up knowing you’re going to win is a problem for Celtic and a problem for the Champions League, just like it was for Ross County and Scottish football.
So where do Celtic go from here? Well, it is at least comforting for them to know they are not alone. Olympiacos for example, untouchable at home and the winner of 19 of the past 20 Greek titles, fail every year to mount a serious campaign in the Champions League. FC Basel of Switzerland are in the same boat, as are teams like Maribor of Slovenia. These teams are all stuck. Too good for what’s at home but not good enough, rich enough, powerful enough, for the Champions League.
So as Celtic make it 55 undefeated games in a row and counting, they do so at least knowing what it’s like, what it’s like to play them and what it’s like to be Ross County.